The criminal justice system is a tough one to work in. At least in major cases, those of us who work in this field are usually there because something awful has happened to someone. In a murder or assault case, someone's dead or seriously injured; in a white-collar case, people may have lost their life savings. The effects on the victims and those close to them can be real and tragic.
The damage isn't limited to the victims' side. We try hard to administer justice fairly, but anyone who's spent any time in the system will tell you it's a deeply flawed one. It's increasingly clear that police officers, prosecutors, and even forensic scientists aren't immune from the universal human temptation to exaggerate, deceive, or overreach in pursuit of our goals. This has a significant effect on how criminal defendants and those close to them view the system. We usually focus on wrongful conviction cases, and for good reason -- the most catastrophic failures are those that result in the conviction of the innocent. But even when defendants are in fact guilty, the use of illegal or unreliable tactics to convict them or convince them to accept plea offers leaves a lingering impression -- not only on those defendants, but also on their families, their friends, and all those observing the proceedings.
These issues, coupled with the high stakes on both sides, spark strong feelings. Defense lawyers may see prosecutors and police officers as ruthless enemies; they may see us as charlatans trying to subvert the cause of justice. Many who have spent their professional lives in this system grow jaded and pessimistic.
But once in awhile, a ray of light appears. One of those showed up just today, involving a former prosecutor (now a magistrate judge) whom I'm proud to call a friend.
The story is here. I won't go into detail because I can't possibly match the quality of this beautifully written piece. But in short, it's a story of a profound mutual understanding that developed between this prosecutor and a defendant she was prosecuting -- a young African-American man, the son of a murdered gang leader, who already had a felony record and was facing a new federal gun charge. She came to see this young man's world as he saw it and to see the choices he'd made through his eyes. Without condoning what he'd done, she came to see a possibility of redemption. He, in turn, developed his own understanding of the legitimate role the prosecutor was playing, and of his own responsibility for the decisions he was making. These two human beings, coming from profoundly different backgrounds, developed a genuine connection that has borne tangible fruit in both of their lives.
With each year I spend in the justice system, I'm increasingly convinced that the lack of this type of understanding -- on both sides -- is a major contributor to the growing strife and unrest we're seeing. On the one hand, there's too much self-righteousness, and too little understanding and humility, on the governmental side. Too many prosecutors and officers talk incessantly about "accountability" and the need for consequences -- until they're discovered to have withheld evidence or otherwise compromised the integrity of a case, in which case a much more conciliatory philosophy tends to emerge. Self-righteousness breeds arrogance, and when that arrogance is directed towards the perceived "punks" and "thugs" on the other side of the line, it's not hard to see how resentment and disrespect can grow in the recipients.
But in fairness, this works the other way too. Those of us who are quick to condemn police officers -- whether for allegedly improper use of force, for disrespectful treatment of civilians, or otherwise -- should acknowledge the difficult tasks we ask them to perform, and the significant risks we ask them to accept, on our behalf. As I told an audience of police officers at a recent seminar, each night when I go to sleep part of my sense of safety comes from the phone I keep by my bedside, ready to dial 911 -- and I know that if I have to make that call, the person who comes to protect my family and me won't be another defense lawyer.
And while we'd like to assume that officers can match their behavior to the actual degree of danger presented in a given situation, that standard can be easier to impose than to apply. Risks don't always announce themselves through clear signals; a former student of mine from my teaching days, who joined the police force after graduating, was shot in the face during a supposedly routine traffic stop. If we're going to ask officers for greater understanding of those whom they confront, they're entitled to the same in return.
One of my most striking memories is from a murder case I handled about a year ago. The victim and my client were both allegedly gang-affiliated. Every court proceeding was extraordinarily tense, with friends and relatives of both filling the courtroom. In one hearing, an all-out brawl erupted in the gallery, with sheriff's deputies ultimately tasing multiple participants.
When we showed up at the next hearing, at which my client entered a plea and was sentenced, everyone was on full alert. Security was enhanced, with an increased number of deputies stationed throughout the courtroom. When the hearing concluded, the entire crowd proceeded out of the courtroom and onto the street outside. Everyone's attention soon focused on two women at the center--the mothers of, respectively, my client and the victim. Both women were obviously experiencing overwhelming emotions, and might have been expected to display outright hatred towards one another. But instead, I saw a genuine respect and understanding between these two women. They were both deeply grief-stricken by what had happened, but each also understood, perhaps better than anyone else could, what the other was experiencing.
The type of mutual understanding displayed by the prosecutor and the defendant in this article, or by the two mothers involved in my case, won't solve all of the problems in the criminal justice system. But it would be a step in the right direction, and I'm deeply grateful for all who seek it.